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Iraq: the politics of the local

About the author
Charles Tripp is professor of middle east politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Among his books are A History of Iraq â†‘(Cambridge University Press, new edition, 2007), Islam and the Moral Economy: The Challenge of Capitalism â†‘(Cambridge University Press, 2006), and the forthcoming, 'The Power and the People: paths of resistance in the Middle East' (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Now that the first phase of the Iraqi civil war seems to have ended, it is time to consider the political processes it may have left in its bloody wake. It is crucial for Iraqis and others to get a sense of the stability and durability of present arrangements. Are they a mechanism for reconciling the ferocious enmities of the past five years in Iraq, or likely to lead to a more violent second phase of the civil war.

Charles Tripp is professor of middle east politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), University of London. Among his books are A History of Iraq (Cambridge University Press, new edition, 2007), and Islam and the Moral Economy: The Challenge of Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

This article was first published in Le Monde Diplomatique (January 2008)

There have been two main patterns during these years of violence and massive population displacement.

One is the localisation of politics, grounded in the insecurities, fears and ambitions of ruthless local leaders across Iraq. This thrives on community feeling, which is sometimes tribal, sometimes ethnic and sectarian; it also springs from rivalry and jostling for power within a provincial arena.

The other pattern is the emergence of a politics at national level under United States auspices, which has much in common with the politics of a protectorate. Both are dangerous for the future, but both may contribute to the emergence of a distinctive, likely troubled, Iraqi politics.

As one Iraqi put it: "the United States got rid of one Saddam only to replace him with fifty". For many people, negotiating their way around and through the little Saddams with their militias, detention centres, local courts and taxes has become a fact of life. Some accept this as the price of increased security for their community, neighbourhood or even street. Others who refused to conform, but knew the price in blood for dissent, have fled - abroad if they could or to a part of Iraq where they may be less visible.

"National institutions" have little or no authority to temper the effects of this on the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Some, such as the police, are often enmeshed in local power and the extortion and repression with which they are associated. Even when officers are not implicated (as with the police chief of Basra, Major-General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf) they can do nothing but lament the fact that in the three months up to mid-November 2007, some forty women have been killed in Basra for wearing make-up, not veiling or otherwise failing to observe the narrow rulings of the repressive local militias.

When national politicians do try to take on this entrenched and violent local power, the chances are that they will lose. This was shown in a recent account of Abu Abed's "Knights of Ameriya". The leader felt that the followers of the vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, were trying to muscle in on the area of west Baghdad that was his fiefdom (see Ghaith Abd al-Ahad, "Meet Abu Abed: the US's new ally against al-Qaida", Guardian, 10 November 2007). Abu Abed's local militia was able to flex its muscles so effectively because it had been drawn into the US plan for the pacification of Baghdad. His "knights", and other militias - incongruously called "concerned citizens" by the US authorities - had received US money, weapons and protection in the name of the fight against "al-Qaida in Iraq".

A question of literacy

The politics of the local, however fractious, uncertain and grim for many Iraqis, have been much encouraged by the United States authorities. This may be due in part to the example of Kurdistan, where the US has been intimately involved since 1991. It is now held up as the only stable and prosperous region of Iraq, but peace there was preceded by years of violence as the two major parties battled each other for supremacy. The political leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, cajoled by the US in 2000 into settling their differences, soon realised there was a greater game and did what they could to speed the downfall of the Baghdad regime in 2003. However, as their subsequent stance has shown, despite Talabani's assumption of the presidency of Iraq, their politics have remained resolutely and defiantly local, symbolised by the refusal even to fly the Iraqi flag over official buildings.

This turning to local figures of authority and power is also the outcome of a belief that political order, like the insurgency, must be rooted in local communities if it is to spread. Using the language deployed over a hundred years before by the French colonial general, Joseph Galliéni, in his campaigns in Tonkin (modern northern Vietnam) and Madagascar, the US high command enthusiastically adopted his strategy of les taches d'huile (oil spots - create many of them and they will seep outwards and eventually join together) as a way to combat both the insurgency and the efforts by "al-Qaida in Iraq" to create no-go areas.

But the use of local strongmen, however repellent their methods, is also due to the illiteracy of United States and allied forces in "reading" Iraqi society. This left them relying on an assortment of exiles who inserted themselves into new US-sponsored forms of power and who have been consistently unable make a truly national government happen. In its absence, the US and its partners, having dismantled the last public vestiges of the old centralised Iraqi state, had no choice but to work with those who could command force on the ground, provide intelligence in specific localities and willingly accept the sponsorship and patronage of the real power in Baghdad, as they had always accepted it from the predecessors of the US in the republican or royal palace.

The politicians of the national government, desperate to replace the US as chief patrons of Iraq's politics, but divided among themselves and uncertain of their power beyond the "green zone", have embodied sectarian and communal politics. They believe these can be a way of connecting with many Iraqis and can provide an escape from a domineering US presence. To resist US demands in the name of an Iraqi sovereignty to which the US pays only lip- service has proved fruitless and humiliating. However, communal politics, with all its complexities, networks and layers, has proved impenetrable to the US and to the secular Iraqis whom the US has favoured.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Iraq's politics and conflicts:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)Zaid Al-Ali, "The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

Sami Zubaida, "Democracy, Iraq and the middle east" (18 November 2005)

Reidar Visser, "Iraq's partition fantasy" (18 May 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation" (7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Communalism and sectarianism became a bulwark against an overbearing patron, but as the events of 2006-07 showed they can carry terrible risks. They do not lessen the dependency of these recently promoted elites upon the power of the US in Iraq. This applies to the Kurdish leaders, who need it to protect them from Turkish intervention, as well as to the insecure leaders who came to office as a result of the victory of the United Iraqi Alliance in the elections of 2005.

These elections produced the formal institutions of representative life - parliament, elected offices of state, constitution - but, as most Iraqis are well aware, real power lies elsewhere. Unresponsive to the concerns of many, used to passing laws that confirm the privileges of those who have succeeded in manipulating the system, the Iraqi parliament is losing whatever authority it had. For many, cynicism has replaced the enthusiasm generated by the elections. In its place is a recognition that it is helping to entrench an order of privilege, a new class-based dispensation which is a driving force behind the politics of communities across the country (see "Shiite Politics in Iraq - the role of the Supreme Council", International Crisis Group report, 15 November 2007.

The orbit of power

This too is part of a strategy designed to reinforce the hold of favoured leaders over the economy, providing them with the means to service their client followings, and to encourage the spots to join up, driven by the common economic interests of the powerful. Competition for these resources is more troublesome than this picture of progressive pacification might suggest. But it could be argued that the oil law currently before the parliament is, at least in its distributive clauses, an attempt to address this, since it seeks a formula for the distribution of Iraq's oil revenues to make it acceptable to all those in a position to profit, whatever their regional or communal base.

The intention in the long run is not to let "a thousand flowers bloom" but to bring the many forms of local power into the orbit of those with major resources at the centre. This could recreate a national politics in Iraq. It might not reproduce the old centralised state, but it would establish a clear hierarchy, from the provinces to the "club of patrons" who will determine the future from Baghdad. Much about this model resembles the imperial protectorates that shaped the politics of the middle east for much of the first half of the 20th century.

Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki heads an insecure, dependent government, resentful of foreign protection but unable to survive without it; this government protests feebly at repeated infringements of Iraqi sovereignty and is subjected to the patronising imposition of benchmarks by the US Congress as part of a domestic political game within the US. Meanwhile the protecting power, as well as sponsoring local militias and asking few questions if they seem to be keeping the supposed threat from al-Qaida in Iraq at bay, is also forging a close relationship with the Iraqi armed forces.

This is reminiscent of the close and often sinister relationship between Latin American military institutions and the US military, and is set against a backdrop of insecure and corrupt political elites, sham representative institutions, restive provinces and the potentially violent politics of a class-divided society. Some may use anti-Americanism to overcome these differences, particularly if this can be focused on the continued presence of US military bases. This has the potential to set up a dangerous schizophrenia within the Iraqi armed forces - a recent report on the rebuilding of the ministry of the interior described it as "a heavily-muscled and well-armed individual with extremely poor physical coordination who suffers from multiple personality disorder" (see Andrew Rathmell, "Fixing Iraq's Internal Security Forces", Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project/CSIS report, 13 November 2007.

Any officer wanting to get ahead must play by US rules, at the same time negotiating with local political elites eager to exploit the force which the army will represent in domestic politics. Yet he is almost certain to come to resent all of these external demands, laying the groundwork for a politics of the military and of military assertion which may be nationalist, contemptuous of civilian politics and ruthless in its methods. Iraq, like many other states, has been here before.

These potentially troubling trends may be a basis for the emergence of Iraqi politics, rather than the collapse and disintegration of the state. However, given the passions, the interests at stake and the vulnerability of Iraqi politics to regional influence and intervention, there is fragility. It comes from the realisation that all parties have no intention of renouncing violence as a means of realising their aims. And the local leaderships may not have as strong a hold over their constituencies as they would want others to believe. A second phase of the civil war is easily imaginable therefore, especially if critical regional events, such as a United States-Iran confrontation, are replicated through clients and protégés in Iraq.


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